Have you ever thought of giving your bones some extra love? We are obsessed about eating for a lean body shape, about ingesting foods that might help ease those fine lines around our eyes and mouth. We cannot get enough of foods that might smoothen out those dents on our thighs, that make our hair fuller and our nails shinier… But what about our bones? What about the strength of our skeleton that holds us together and is our backbone, quite literally. All too often we forget just how important it is to nurture our precious bones with foods, movement and a lifestyle that will keep them healthy and us active and mobile also as we grow older. Osteoporosis is tricky because it happens silently. You cannot feel or see when those bones of yours become more porous, lose their density and become more prone to breaking. As we age our ability to absorb calcium decreases which means we need to be even more aware about eating enough of this bone-strengthening mineral. This makes it also even more important to stay on top of your healthy bone game and take preventative measures to fight this debilitating disease.
Let me share with you my 6 Super-Powers to strong and healthy bones.
- Eat foods that are rich in calcium
Calcium is a major building block of our skeleton. 99% of the calcium that is stored in the body is stored in our bones. In addition, it acts as a reservoir for maintaining calcium levels in the blood. This however is crucial for the normal functioning of our nerves and muscles. So, if these fluctuate your body will take the calcium from your bones instead to prevent further, more immediate life-threatening harm.
Here is my go-to list of calcium rich foods that will ensure your body gets plenty of the bone building mineral and does not have to use plan B and withdraw it from your bones:
- Dark leafy vegetables (curly kale, bok choy, broccoli)
- Dairy products
- Fish with eatable bones (sardines, salmon)
- Nuts (almonds and brazil nuts in particular)
- Seeds (especially poppy and sesame seeds or sesame paste such as tahini)
- Seaweed, dried
- Certain fruits (especially oranges, dried figs, apricots)
- Nurture your bones with vegetables, fruits and lots of protein
In order for your bones to keep their optimal strength and density it is essential to consume a wide array of delicious vegetables and fruits. It is those vegetables and fruits that are bursting full of life-giving-health-boosting-beautifying and bone-strengthening vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Research shows that a diet where fruits and vegetables are plentiful, has a positive effect on bone density in the elderly. Vitamins and minerals that are particularly important when it comes to give your skeleton some strong back-up include magnesium, potassium, vitamin K, zinc, vitamin A, C and B.
In addition, you want to make sure you are consuming adequate protein, so your body does not have to dismantle its own structure to satisfy its needs but instead can keep on building strong muscles and bones. Great sources of good quality plant protein are legumes and pulses such as lentils and beans, as well as seeds, nuts, and fermented soy products. When it comes to animal protein eggs, fatty fish, lean meats and dairy products are particularly rich sources of this structure-building micronutrient. While animal sources of protein are easier to absorb for the body, it is important to note that excessive consumption of animal-based protein can actually promote leaching calcium from your bones. So, don’t neglect those delicious plant sources of this important body fuel. Let me share my golden protein rule with you: always include some form of protein, more plant than animal, but make it your healthy habit to include this structure forming macronutrient, with every meal or snack. This is not only your best insurance policy against brittle, wasting bones but will also keep you satisfied and full for longer and therefore is great for your waistline.
- Make sure you get enough of the sunshine vitamin
Vitamin’s D main role in the body is to promote normal bone mineralisation and as such in particular making sure that enough calcium is laid down in the bones to keep them strong and dense. The easiest and most cost-efficient way to ensure you are getting enough of this bone strengthening vitamin is to regularly get sufficient exposure of sunshine. You would think this is easier done than said in Australia, however, be aware of the fact that sunscreen does not only block out UV radiation but also reduces our ability to absorb the sunshine vitamin greatly. So, if this is you and you are finding it much too hard to get out early enough to fill up on a healthy, skin-friendly dose of sun before radiation becomes too harsh, here is your plan B: consume foods that contain vitamin D.
There are not many foods that offer easy absorbable sources of vitamin D. Dietary sources include fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, cod liver and eggs. There are also a number of fortified foods such as margarines, breakfast cereals, highly processed breads and low-fat milks that have made their appearance on our supermarket shelves, however I would question their overall healthfulness, outside all the vitamin D craze. My tip: stick with the few real vitamin D containing wholefoods that there are.
- Limit your alcohol, caffeine and salt intake and know your oxalates
I am sure it won’t come as a big surprise if I now tell you that the key to good bone health is – as with the many things – practicing balance and moderation. This is particularly true when it comes to booze. Excessive alcohol consumption, that is more than 2 standard drinks per day, interferes with your body’s ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D properly. In addition, as we all know drinking too much of the intoxicating liquid harms your liver and thus reduces its ability to activate bone mineralising vitamin D.
Along similar lines: research shows that excessive salt and caffeine intake leach calcium from bones, and thus promote loss of this mineral from your skeleton. As with so many things in nutrition, research around caffeine consumption and loss of calcium is not as conclusive and straight forward as it is when it comes to alcohol or salt. However, there seems to be some evidence that links carbonated drinks containing caffeine and decreased bone density, particularly in women. As a general rule: if you are eating adequate and healthful sources of protein, your body should be able to even out the lost calcium by laying down new ones.
If you feel now, you are totally on top of your strong, healthy bones and you got this, let me add some more food confusion adding oxalates to your dense bone game. Oxalates are compounds found in many plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds which bind to calcium and thus make it less bioavailable. However, for most individuals the health-promoting effects of those whole foods outperform the side effects of those mentioned anti-nutrients. If you are ensuring you are eating many different foods that are rich sources of calcium, your body should be able to deal with those oxalate-mineral-binding effects just fine. You could also safeguard your bones by rinsing soaking, sprouting or fermenting your foods to avoid an accumulation of mineral-binding substances.
- Fall in love with your muscle strengthening exercise routine
Here is the fun bit: one of the best ways to look after and care for your bones is by performing weightbearing or strength building workouts. Research shows that engaging in forms of resistance training or aerobic impact exercises such as running, walking, dancing or jumping does not only boost bone cell formation in young people, but also helps to maintain bone strength and density in adults and even slows bone loss in the elderly. This is due to the repetitive tugging and pushing on bone during those movements or exercises.
So, in case your exercise motivation is running on rather thin ice at the moment, I can help you gain some more solid workout grounds. Think about it this way: performing your push-ups, lunges, deadlifts and squats does not only make you look irresistibly toned and strong and provides you with beautiful curves on all the right spots, it is also your best bone preserver. I don’t know about you but looking and feeling strong and fabulous all of a sudden has become more important than ever.
So, next time your wrists are killing you, your thighs are burning or your lower back is really feeling the load, how about congratulating yourself on strengthening exactly those areas on your body that are so prone to fracture. And wait there is more: those early morning walks or runs are not only keeping you mentally sane by reducing those stress levels of yours and boosting your happy hormones, they may also be your best insurance policy against those nasty fractures in your hips and legs.
- Quit smoking, restricting calories and dieting
Let me say this straightforward, no confusing nutrition knowledge needed, I promise:
If you care for your bones and it is your intention to live a long, mobile life feeling strong and being active, it is time to say yes to a healthy, intact skeleton of yours and no to smoking, restricting calories and dieting.
Cigarette smoke unleashes whole armies of free radicals that are trying rampage on your body’s defences and thus causes a myriad of problems and damage. The result is among many other issues an imbalance of hormones. Oestrogen, your bone-strengthening hormone is downsized and cortisol, your stress hormone is upsized which is known to breakdown bone tissue in an attempt to minimise damage in the body and preserve other body systems. But this is not all: nicotine and all those toxins do also actively kill osteoblasts, your bone-forming cells, which is of course making your bones weaker and more porous one cigarette at a time.
And what about those diets and restrictive forms of eating? How do they impact on your bone health? Counting or restricting calories and dieting often means you are reducing your food intake so much that you are missing out on those bone-healthy nutrients on a regular basis and in sufficient amounts. Also, please be aware that if you already do have a slimmer frame, you are of course much more prone to osteoporosis and it is extra important that you nurture your connective tissue accordingly. If you are planning to lose weight but are not willing to sacrifice your beautiful dense bone mass in exchange for a thinner body, stay on top of your strength training game. Maintaining a low body weight or lowering it is best done by enjoying a varied, nutritious diet of all the different, wonderful and most delicious wholefoods your country has on offer. So, instead of restricting calories or following the latest fad diet, say yes to good old- fashioned vegetables, nuts, seeds, fatty fish and wholegrains.
As with so many things: prevention really is your best cure! I believe you cannot start early enough to take protective steps to keep your skeleton strong and dense. Once your bones are porous and thin and your doctor has made your osteoporosis danger official, it will be very hard to avoid those age-related fractures and breaks. Yuk. Especially since being bone aware and giving your connective tissue some serious nutritious, physical and lifestyle love is far easier and more fun than limping around on crutches. It also involves less pain – your strength workout included. Just saying. Who else is choosing a sexy dense skeleton over fast lived little pleasures, junk food, self-limiting restriction, overly caffeinated and inactive lives???